Day 57c of Walking Out of the World. Over the frontier and down into Spain as the light fades and the mist rises. I arrive for the evening pilgrim Mass in the abbey of Roncesvalles and I am finally free from the vipers of Saint-Martin-du-Canigou.
(Previous post: Day 57b The Vipers of the Pyrenees: Part 2.)
I sat down at Roland’s Spring to drink the wine left from lunch, saved in my water bottle. Then I filled both bottles, even though I was on the downhill stretch to Roncesvalles. A natural water source is one of the free gifts a walking pilgrim finds. Reflecting on the free gifts once received in the past can be a way of laying painful memories to rest. If you only hold in your mind’s eye the bad moments of an experience when confronting demons of the past, it only leads you to run away again. So the negative image gets buried in the subconscious, like the viper you did not want to look at, but is still there in your room where you shut the door and ran away. When you had it in your sight you could have dealt with it. Now the creature is still waiting for you.
Ever since the camping ground in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, talking to the walkers heading east, when I pointed out the abbey of Saint-Martin-du-Canígou on the map, I had opened that door but the viper was not in sight. The window was still open but had it gone out? Could it manage to go up the wall or was it trapped there waiting to be released?
That day, with the tears still staining my cheeks, I walked along the corridor not knowing quite where I was going next, and I heard the soft sound of a dulcimer. Sister Clara. For once she was not sobbing, which is the sound that always came from her room. I had never knocked on her door before. There had never been any reason to: in a religious community you meet up regularly enough through the day, for prayer, for meals, for work. Once in your cell, you expect your individual time – unless there is an emergency or an urgent call – not that we ever received any phone calls. Phone calls were solely for the Bergère, Sister Héloïse, or for Brother Bernard speaking to the Founder in Normandy or the Cardinal Archbishop’s architect in Toledo about the house that our team was preparing to move into. The dulcimer stopped but the door did not open.
A pilgrim bourdon is made for descending, and now I had reached the Navarra waymarker stone on the Spanish side of the frontier, the long bourdon could reach out two metres in front of my footsteps to slow the descent, like slowing down a punt while approaching the landing stage, then rolling over and swinging it to the front again.
Further down, descending in the thick afternoon mist, like the mists that rose from the valley and completely enfolded the abbey before we went to our evening prayers and the vipers hid themselves under the red roof tiles for the night.
“Who is it?” asked Sister Clara from behind the closed door. It was the top corridor of rooms below the abbey bell tower.
“Sorry. There’s a snake in my room,” I said.
“¿Que serpiente?” Sister Clara opened the door, and she had clearly been crying earlier, as the front of her white habit was wet. Was her dulcimer a way to soothe whatever pain troubled her? “What snake?”
“A viper from the roof,” I said. “You’ve been here longer than me. You were already here when I first came to visit from Barcelona last year. I thought you may know what to do when there’s a snake in the room.”
“Was it the snake that made you cry?” She laughed, and pointed her finger near my face.
“No, that was the snake Héloïse!” I said. “In my room there’s a different snake. A viper.”
Clara put her hand over her mouth, in mock shock at my un-monastic words about the Bergère, and then her frightened eyes darted left, toward the stair well. Yes, she knew. It would be exactly such a moment that the Bergère would appear. At the precise moment of some inappropriate joke or non-cooperation with the obligatory charismatic joy in the Lord. But seeing nobody there, Sister Clara laughed. “I’ll deal with your snake. It happened to me once. There are so many of them up there in the roof tiles. They don’t mean to be a nuisance but they sometimes fall through the open window and can’t climb out.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I have a phobia.”
At the end of the corridor was a communal cleaning cupboard with brooms and wooden mops and metal buckets: the usual monastic collection of robust equipment that had been there for generations. Clara came out with a long-handled metal dustpan with a flip-cover opened by a rusty rod with a hand-grip at the top of the handle. It looked like a nineteenth century relic.
“You’re wearing sandals,” I said.
“¿Es una sorpresa tan grande?” she asked, bringing out a long witch’s broom… Well, how else do you describe that kind of broom? There isn’t a word for it, is there?
Clara was Catalan from Gerona on other side of the frontier. She was also in the team to go to the Toledo house. All our team were Spanish speakers. I was the only one who spoke English. She went in front of me, the broom and the dustpan brushing against her white habit and white novice scapular, but I feared for her sandalled feet in any confrontation with the viper. I did not want to look. But I had to look because in my mind I had to know it was no longer there after she had dealt with it. We walked into the room, Sister Clara first, with the dustpan lid open, poised ready to snatch the snake, and the witch’s broom ready to brush it in.
“It was there in the corner under the window,” I said. There was no sign of it. I stayed at the door while Sister Clara went over to the window. She looked back at me, her expression saying, are you sure about it…? “It was there. It must be under the bed!”
“That will be more difficult,” she said. There was a long bed cover nearly reaching to the tiled floor. “Can you lift the cover?”
“No!” I whispered. “No….!”
“If I come from this side and it’s there, it will come towards you.”
I stepped back into the corridor. I heard the metallic ‘tonk’ of the lid shutting on the dustpan. Clara came out into the corridor. Holding the dustpan at arm’s length.
“It’s in here. We could tip it out over the valley below, then you can be sure it has gone forever! Hombre, why are you so afraid? Tengo el maldito serpiente. Sister Héloïse, the snake who made you cry! ¡Serpiente del Demonio!“
As we turned to go out into the cloister at my end of the corridor through the open archway, we froze. The Bergère, Sister Héloïse was standing motionless in the arch. She was glaring at Sister Clara coming out of my room. If looks could kill we would all have been struck dead immediately, including the viper in the dustpan.
“What are you doing? Sister Clara, why are you in his room?”
I began to say, “A snake…” but leapt back. In a reflext action of surprise at seeing the Bergère, Sister Clara had opened the lid as she stopped abrubtly. The viper landed on the sandalled feet of Sister Héloïse. In that moment I saw her throwing that cheap plastic turquoise rosary on the floor in front of me.
The Bergère screamed and jumped back, as the viper bit into the instep of her right foot, then fled in a split second into the cloister. She slid down the sandy coloured 11th century Romanesque stones of the archway, onto the red floor tiles of the corridor. There was a smear of dark blood on her white veil, but she was still conscious and still angry, as she sat there speechless and open-mouthed, but with the small black eyes of a viper. Sister Clara rushed to help her.
A month later, only a few of us brothers and sisters were waiting in the 11th century chapel for evening prayer to begin. The Bergère, Sister Héloïse had not arrived. She was in a meeting with the more important members of the community. The Founder had arrived from Normandy as well, and Brother Bernard, the team leader for the Spanish mission, had just arrived back from Toledo. Père François had arrived either, so there was nobody to lead evening prayer. It was an awkward moment. There were whispers. Nobody felt confident to start, in case they did arrive and we were reprimanded for starting evening prayer with no authority.
Ruth, an anorexic-looking young sister from Provence said Père François had been summoned by the Bishop of Perpignan and he wasn’t coming back. She had been in the kitchen when the car came and the chauffeur came in for coffee. Brother Theodore, a member of the Toledo group whispered, “I don’t know what they are deciding but we are not going to Toledo. Everything is off.”
Sister Clara and I exchanged glances but said nothing. It seemed that our letters to the French and the Spanish Papal Nuncios had been received. It was the moment to escape. Maybe the police would arrive. Clara looked just as I felt. She had gone pale. My heart was racing. The only way to do this was to get a taxi from Casteil to come up the mountain at midnight. We had no mobile phones in those days. There was one phone for the abbey. In the kitchen.
Finally, Brother Bernard, Sister Héloïse and a few other senior members of the community came in. I recognized some from Normandy. It was serious. There was no sign of the Founder or his wife. They were keeping out of sight. Before starting evening prayer, the Bergère spoke privately to Sister Clara. Brother Bernard came over to me. “My office, tomorrow, immediately after breakfast.”
Sister Clara had made the phone call from the kitchen to the taxi office in Casteil and the taxi had waited, slightly down the mountain from the abbey, at a popular picnic spot, where he could turn around easily on the narrow road. In those days the road had only just been paved with tarmac for the first time. I left the tractor keys in the box for charity offerings at the door. That door where young enthusiastic people sometimes arrived to join the community. We only had a light holdall each and we walked quickly down the road with the handles of Clara’s holdall shared between us. She had cash in Francs for the taxi, sent by her family in Gerona, and I said I would share the cost once we reached Perpignan and I could withdraw some money with my bank card.
Clara, no longer sister, only began crying after we had safely cleared the village of Casteil and were on the road to Perpignan. Nobody could harm her now. I sat there and wanted to at least hold her hand, but in the circumstances I did not. I had no idea about the effects of abuse. Maybe it would send out the wrong signals, but I still felt bad, not making contact.
We sat on the railway station platform in Perpignan. It was a very long wait for my night train, coming up from Barcelona and taking me to Paris; and then her night train from Marseilles going south over the Spanish frontier to Gerona, where her family were staying up late to welcome her home. We knew what we had jointly written to the Papal Nuncios in Paris and Toledo had been received, because Père François had been summoned by the Bishop here in Perpignan, and was probably staying with him now in the bishop’s house before being sent back to Canada or maybe Rome.
All Clara’s confessions had also got back to the Bergère who then fed them back to the Founder. Clara had received a direct threat from him. The Church took the Canon Law issues about the Seal of the Confession far more seriously than what had happened to Clara, and she knew what happened to her had also happened to other sisters in various houses of the community. Sadly, it would take many more years before anyone would listen. The abusers simply became more careful after that. It was a terrible personal learning point for me: the Church never believes those who have no power. So, by the time they could overlook the signs no longer, many more suffered before arrests and trials finally began, and by the time this became a headline news story all over France, so many more had been abused.
We did not exchange addresses – I had no address now anyway – and I waved from the window as the Paris night train pulled away from Perpignan. And the thought occurred to me – too late now – as I saw her lower her head and cry again, under the dim lights of the platform: ‘Clara’ would have been her religious name, taken as a novice. She would return to Gerona and be known by her former Christian name, unknown to me.
And so I’ve crossed the Pyrenees and I faced up to the vipers. For the first time in all these years, I have not shrugged off the abbey nightmare as ‘just a wrong turning’ on the pilgrimage. I have returned to the place fully and I have remembered the good in it too. The sense of awe experienced in that 11th century abbey. The silence in which I prayed the Jesus Prayer on this very same green woollen Orthodox prayer rope. The sound of the waterfall on the rock face opposite, amplified by the echo in the small Romanesque cloister. The joy of the singing – before the darker side of the place became known to me – and all of that innocence could once be seen in the face of Clara, as she had looked when I first went to the abbey on a visit long ago, before I joined the community. There were many other things that I remembered and gave thanks for, because I had finally found the courage to remember it all and celebrate the good, as well as learn from the bad.
As I walked, the light faded more quickly now because of the mist, and I arrived finally at the monastery of Roncesvalles, tired and wet from the mist, thinking no more of the vipers of Saint-Martin-du-Canígou as I sat in the abbey church and said the Jesus Prayer before the statue of Saint James the Pilgrim, while waiting for the evening pilgrim Mass and blessing those setting out from here, on the Way of Saint James to Compostela. I prayed that maybe somewhere here in this land a dulcimer was being played with joy and giving its healing, and the experience all those years ago had been repaired by some truly loving family and friends.
Like Eco’s The Name of the Rose, “Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus,” I never knew her name.
*While the places and events in this recollection are real, for legal reasons it must be clearly stated that the names have been invented. For the purposes of this narrative, therefore, I ask the reader to regard these persons as characters in a moral tale, and I ask that you neither search for additional history nor ask the author for more information than is provided here.
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